Katherine Macfarlane, high school yearbook swim pic

Katherine Macfarlane at 17, high school yearbook

It’s 7:30 a.m. and I have a whole lane to myself in LSU’s glorious 8-lane lap pool. The sunshine streaming in through the floor to ceiling windows makes a sliver of the pool sparkle.  The lifeguard waves at me and shouts out good morning.  I’m a good swimmer, good enough that I can confidently slip into one of the fast lanes and know that no one will dare join me.  I’m about to swim a mile, which will count as a pretty decent workout.  I’m at home in the water and the smell of chlorine is almost pleasant.  Still, I’m miserable and would rather be anywhere else.

The mile will not be easy; it’s a distance I could not cover on foot.  To get to the pool, I hobbled from my car to the rec center’s entrance, and I hobbled into the locker room.  I am in pain, and swimming will not change that.

Right before I start my swim, I am at one end of the pool, my left arm stretched out in front of me, my right hand gripping the pool’s edge.  My right elbow bends, and so do both my knees.  I’m wound tightly into a ball, a spring ready to explode.

I leave the wall in what my high school swimming coach would consider a disappointing streamline position, hands above my head, one folded on top of the other.  The form isn’t perfect for many reasons, including the absence of a coach ready to yell at me.  The real problem is my left arm, which I can’t straighten out all the way.  My push off is also compromised—I have to use more force in my right leg than my left because my left knee is swollen and can’t handle the force of a full push.  Because my right leg is on top when I push off, I end up veering slightly right.

I flutter kick for a few seconds, and then my right arm pulls away from my streamline and sweeps the side of my body, propelling me to the water’s surface.  I’ve chosen to pull out of my streamline with my right arm because that arm isn’t locked in a position far short of straight.  If I’d used my left arm, I would have felt a painful twinge in my elbow at the moment the powerful sweep pushed my wrist back, right when the momentum of the pull got caught in my locked elbow.  That arm needs to warm up before I can rely on it to bring me to the surface.

By the time it’s my left arm’s turn to move, I don’t know yet how bad the pain will be, but I go for a full stroke anyway.  It hurts more than usual.  But I keep on going.  Lap after lap, kicking, pulling, practicing drills and trying to breath on rhythm, every five strokes one lap, every three strokes the next.  Up, down, back again.  All of it hurts.  But in a good way.  This is pain that I will recover from and pain that’s worth it.

“Just stop when it hurts,” is the medical advice I’ve received about exercise.  I defy it, every day.  I mean, I wouldn’t get out of bed if I followed that vague nonsense. Everything.  Always.  Hurts.  Most exercising hurts, from beginning to end.  The trick is figuring out what kind of pain is good and what kind of pain is bad, and weighing the amount of pain exercising causes against the benefits exercise confers.  I’ve figured this out through trial and error.  Running is bad.  Swimming (but not the breaststroke) is good.  I can’t do pushups, but I can manage quite a few planks.  I can no longer play volleyball, but discovered Pilates when I was 29.  I stubbornly assume that there’s always some modification or correction that will let me exercise my muscles without destroying my joints.

I’ve been at this since the age of 12, exercising at least three times a week, 52 weeks a year.  I’ve exercised right after knee drainings and through countless flares.  Snowstorms don’t stop me, and I don’t take breaks when I’m on vacation.  I’ve made a gym out of a hotel room floor, a blanket on the beach, and, during one ill-advised moment of desperation, I did Pilates warm-up exercises on a cold stone bench at the top of Rome’s Janiculum hill.

I’m not a masochist and take no pride in my commitment.  I’ve also enjoyed next to none of the time I’ve spent exercising.  But I don’t expect to enjoy it, just like I don’t enjoy the sting I feel when I give myself my Cimzia injections, or the burn from my Combigan eye drops as they move from my tear ducts down the back of my throat.  I take my medication because its helps me fend off a worsening of my conditions.  Exercise is in the same category:  treatment.

I’ve never experienced anything close to a runner’s high.  At the end of my swims, I’m tired, sore and cranky.  After an hour of Pilates, my joints are tender and I walk with a limp.  But after 33 years of living with RA, I’m still walking.  What exercise gives me is staying power.  The pain has been worth it.


Please note that the content of this post reflects the personal experience of the blogger and does not constitute medical advice. Success or failure with a drug, a personal fitness program, diet, or psychological outlook is individual. Readers cannot assume that they can replicate any success or failure they read about in a blog. Always seek the advice of a physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding your medical condition or medications.